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A Better Looking Mousetrap

Chair, bathtub, washing machine--you name it, Daniel and Christopher Streng have given it a makeover.

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There are few things less interesting to look at than a washing machine--except maybe a dryer. But hit the standard machine with a zap of personality and you just might interest the people who go for the new Beetle and Razr phones.

At least that was the idea at Whirlpool three years ago, when the appliance firm enlisted Daniel and Christopher Streng to come up with something visually arresting for the laundry room. Working out of their studio in a loft building near Garfield Park, the brothers devised a slick washer-dryer combo, the iMac meets Tide.

They rounded the edges, softening the usual machine's rigid shoulders, and put a preschool-orange door with a porthole-like window on the matte silver body. They replaced knobs and buttons with flat-panel controls. Then they tilted the machine back on its rubber feet, angling it just enough to make it seem a little more receptive than a traditional model. The result is a sleek machine with a slightly cartoonish air. Whirlpool went with the name Pla to underscore its cheeky irreverence.

In 2003 the company teamed up with a big-box appliance chain for a test run. (The Strengs can't identify the appliance store because of contractual agreements.) At the three stores in Chicago, Houston, and Santa Monica where Pla was sold, "we cleared the shelves," Daniel says. But then the appliance chain decided to go after customers other than the hip young demographic Pla was designed for and abandoned the model. Pla isn't available here anymore. But a Whirlpool executive on the project has decamped for Europe to try to move the inventory there.

Designing a whimsical washer was a natural extension of childhood for Daniel, 36, and Christopher, 33, who spent their early years building things together. The only sons of a game warden and a homemaker who had studied art and had wanted to work at New York magazines like Harper's Bazaar, the boys lived half a mile outside rural Chilton, Wisconsin, between a cornfield and an alfalfa field. "We had to make things happen, we made our own fun," Daniel says. Like a lot of kids, they made Halloween costumes, forts for plastic cowboys and Indians, and rubber-band guns. But they also dabbled in making their own shoes: "You'd rip your shoes apart and glue another material into them, replace leather with plastic or get some vinyl at the dime store," Daniel recalls. "Our mother taught us both to sew, so we'd sew them up however we wanted." In high school Christopher drove an old Volkswagen Beetle he'd modified into a dune buggy for riding around off-road. And even now, though the design process happens mostly on a computer screen, "it's not uncommon for one of us to toss the mouse aside and start nailing and gluing and sewing stuff together," Daniel says.

When Daniel started out as a premed student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1986, he didn't even know you could major in design until a friend's portfolio happened to spill onto the floor. Within a few weeks he was cutting his anatomy and psychology classes to pull together samples so he could apply to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, among other things whipping together a shirt. The next fall, when he started there, majoring in industrial design, "There was no way I could not drag my brother down to my classes," Daniel says. "So he started skipping his high school classes to come with me."

Christopher went on to join him at MIAD, and since finishing school in 1991 and 1994, the brothers have worked both together and alone, designing furniture, bathtubs, product packaging, and other items. Their work has been showcased by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and featured in the design magazine Surface. In early May Christopher addressed an audience at the National Kitchen and Bath Association convention in Las Vegas. It was probably the largest group to see him since the early 90s, when he modeled for an Arizona Jeans ad.

Because designers generally go uncredited, you likely wouldn't know whether you've seen the Strengs' work. But if you've eaten at Mod, on Damen Avenue in Wicker Park, you've seen Daniel's funky Jetsons-esque lights over the bar. If you've shopped for high-end bath fixtures, you might have seen Kohler's Sok--a bathtub-within-a-tub where water continuously flows over the edge of the inner tub into a channel surrounding it. That's by Christopher, and it retails for $7,118. If you've shopped at Orange Skin, the design showroom with locations on Milwaukee and West Erie, you might have seen Clocky, also by Daniel. Standing six inches high on two splayed wooden legs, Clocky ($38) looks like Gumby would if he swallowed a wristwatch.

"Their work is playful. It makes you redefine the way you look at stuff," says Obi Nwazota, Orange Skin's owner. "The Strengs seem to be able to go from furniture to accessories to you-name-it, like the best European designers who do everything and aren't just stuck doing clothes or something."

This eclecticism was borne out one recent day in the office of the Strengs' six-person studio. Four small boxes were lined up on a table, their contents stuff that had caught somebody's eye within the past week: a tray made of molded paper for carrying cups, a piece of meringue candy, vanilla packaged in a test tube, some foam gaskets, a green holder for potted plants that looked like Styrofoam but was made of rice.

Daniel brought in a tangerine-colored bar stool, its molded seat tapering off into a single slender stem of a leg attached to a flat aluminum base. It could have been an abstract sculpture of a marigold. Christopher designed it for a Chicago bar that never opened. "I grew up heavily outdoors," he said, "so a lot of my items, while they might be brightly colored and flirtatious, they're derived from natural forms. I wanted this to feel like it was something growing from the earth, like it was coming right out of the ground, not the floor of a bar."

On the walls were dozens of drawings, ideas for repackaging a once popular but now dusty breakfast drink (again the Strengs can't identify it because of confidentiality agreements) that the brothers were asked to update. They envisioned serving the product in little plastic egg baskets, supercompacted as pellets that dissolve in water, or in small cartons like school-lunch milk containers, only sleeker.

"Daniel and Christopher are not afraid to work with companies that other designers would never think of working for," says Grace Jeffers, a New York designer and design historian who's been a friend of the Strengs since she met Daniel some years ago at an industry party in Milan (he was wearing a backpack covered with flexible spikes). "They'll work for the Whirlpools and the Kohlers when all the other fresh, hot, young designers in America want to work for Cappellini, Magis, or Umbra. Designers think of Kohler as a dead doornail; they don't want to work for Kohler. But Christopher's work for Kohler was avant-garde in the context of that company." The Strengs haven't entirely confined themselves to the white-bread firms, however. They designed a portable showroom for Cappellini, an Italian furniture line, and have licensed a few of their designs to Magis, another Italian furniture maker.

Jeffers says the brothers also differ from the run of designers in their willingness to share information, contacts, and ideas. "The young designers in general don't share squat," she says. "You ask, 'Where did you get this material?' They're 'I can't remember.' Or 'Hey, I'm trying to meet this person, can you introduce me?' 'Yeah, someday.' They're protectionist. But Daniel is like, 'Yeah, you want to meet Herb Kohler? Sure.' I think he believes you can get more by giving more."

The brothers "network like mothercrackers," Jeffers says. Christopher "never ceases to amaze me. I'll ask him how he got in with this company and he says, 'I called them up.'" In the mid-90s, when the Strengs were both out of college and Daniel had just sold the small advertising firm he started, they took what money they had and went to Italy, hoping to make some kind of contact with the tight clique of high-end designers there. They worked their way into an elite crowd of people they still work for and hang with. Christopher did so well, in fact, that he was invited to Versace's funeral. "You can see me four rows behind Princess Di in the footage," he says.

The brothers will tell you which piece is by whom, but they don't want you to be able to guess. When clients call to commission them, Christopher says, they don't ask for one brother or the other: "Hopefully, you have no idea which one you want, because it's a package. What we do for you is filtered and shaped by both of us." That's not to say there are no differences between them. Daniel lives in Wicker Park, Christopher in Oak Park. Daniel, Jeffers says, is quieter, more down-to-earth; Christopher, the former model, "has a seductive quality and takes risks that Daniel wouldn't." While Christopher borrows lines from nature, Daniel describes his work as "tighter, more edited." He designed a day lounge he calls the Plateau, which lays a preformed chaise longue alongside a tabletop where you might put your laptop or magazine. "It's for somewhere between leisure and work, a place to be moderately inclined," he says. More recently Daniel, the father of a two-year-old boy, has started delving into baby stuff--in particular, Pampers. "I'm really interested in diapers," he says. "How they're layered and how they stretch--there are so many dynamics going on, all these things captured in the elastics and folds. It would take weeks if you wanted to fabricate one by hand." Not that he wouldn't try.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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